Science and Theater in Action

This weekend, Lynn Watson and I held the very first Science and Theater workshop to train graduate students in the College of Engineering and Information Technology and Theater Students at UMBC to work together with middle school science teachers at Arbutus Middle School to develop theatrical performances that demonstrate scientific ideas.

The goal is to find the joy in science, learn to communicate it, and, perhaps, spark new theatrical ideas.

For the workshop, we all spent two and half days doing writing exercises, participating in vocal training, doing improv, and planning for the visits to the school.

After the first full day, I was sore and a bit concerned that this would all turn out. At the end of the workshop, we had a cadre of people full of joy and ready to collaborate. I don’t know what will happen in school, but I am beyond proud of the group. The instructors, students, teachers– every single person worked harder than I’ve ever seen and did things that can be a bit silly and require a good bit of courage. If you doubt me, write something that is deeply descriptive and personal and share it with people you have known for 1 day or do improv with people you’ve known for less than that.

I love science. I love exploring. But, between the heartbreak of experiments that turn out unexpectedly, the seemingly endless grant writing and wondering when you will get the papers completed– it can be frustrating. Thinking about the intersection of science and theater is not easy, but it is joyful. One of the parts of vocal exercises is learning how to create space in your body for your voice. At the end of the exercise, I took up space in a way that I hadn’t in a long time, and I had a newfound voice to go with it. The students, likewise, filled the space and had newfound voices (and a good bit of laughter). It was a pilot, a start, but I have my fingers and toes crossed. Hopefully, we can bring this joy to the classroom.

Finding the incredible in the awful on Christmas Day

Around 11:30 am, just as we were picking up my dad for our Christmas Day tradition of Dim Sum, I got a call. My aunt was going to the ER. We dropped my Dad back at his hotel and headed down to the hospital.

My son and husband parked in the lobby with an ipad and huge lego build. I met my aunt’s former neighbor in the ER. My aunt had called her the night before, and she called me on their way there.

On Sunday evening, my aunt called me. We haven’t talked much in recent years, and late night phone calls were rare. When my mom was alive, late night phone calls went to her and usually involved a DUI or some other event that required a visit to the precinct. I hadn’t expected her to tell me she had some kind of cancer, and it seemed to be in her spine and brain.

We talked, and I called a good friend who is an oncologist, and then I called my aunt the next day. She was scared, but she was seeing an oncologist on Tuesday and hoped they could help. I didn’t call on Tuesday.

I met my aunt’s former neighbor. We had never talked before today. Her aunt used to live next to my aunt, and they got to know each other over the years, and my aunt called her on Christmas eve because she was scared. She came over and spent the night. By Christmas morning, it was clear she was really sick, so she called for help and took her to the hospital. We talked for over an hour about my aunt, families, caring for relatives, and the surprises life brings. She is a phenomenal person.

Tonight, my aunt is in the ICU. I don’t know what the future will bring. Everyone is tired.

The strange thing is there were incredibly beautiful moments today. My son was incredible. My husband was wonderful. The two of them spent many hours finding entertainment in an empty lobby. In between tests, I spent a good part of the afternoon talking to my aunt. We hadn’t talked in a long time, and she hasn’t always been sure of me in recent years, but today, she wanted me to hold her hand, and she asked me to explain what was going on. I was so grateful to be useful.

My mom died in 2008. My aunt, her sister, reminded me more of her today than she ever has before. They were always very different people, but today, I saw the similarities. She’s tough like my mom, and she doesn’t suffer anything from anyone. She can be incredibly kind and generous. She laughs like my mom.

I called a relative I haven’t seen in at least 20, probably 30, years. She, too, was incredibly kind. Nothing like a call about a medical crisis to upend someone’s Christmas, but she talked, and in the middle of things, it was good to talk with her.

It’s been a day of surprises. I’m so grateful for the people whose paths I crossed today– my aunt’s former neighbor, my relative, and my aunt. I wish all of it was under very different circumstances, but I got to spend Christmas with some really special people.

Letters and speaking up

After my mom died, I went through her things, figuring out what to keep, give away, or throw out. In the top drawer of bureau, there was a letter. It was sent to her when she was 19. She kept it until her death. It must have moved with her 10 or 12 times.

The letter was from my grandmother. It explained that my grandmother would not be paying for anymore college because my mom wasn’t listening to her. She was wild and unruly. She smoked. The thing that stood out was that at the end of the list of all of the reasons my mom wasn’t a good girl was the statement that my mom was beautiful, and if she could just keep her mouth shut, she could attract a good man.

When I went to school, my mom went back to college. She took one class a semester. On days I was home sick, I went to class with her. It was deadly boring a lot of time, but she stuck with it. She was in the program so long that they kept changing requirements, and she had to retake her computer class because they had moved away from punch cards. (One of my terrible childhood moments was that I added extra punches to some of her cards and took others out of order to draw on them. My poor mom.)

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting when I was 12 years old. She got her CPA. It was terribly hard for her. Mom wasn’t the kind of person who wanted to sit and study. She was a woman of action at all times. Still, she got through.

She had been out of the workforce for many years. Being my mom didn’t count as a job although I can think of nothing harder. She finally got a job at the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). She wasn’t a stereotypical accountant. She spoke up a lot. She could move the numbers, but she loved the names. She worked on defined benefit plans– plans where participants had been promised a certain pension. Often, companies went under and hadn’t funded their plans. The PBGC guaranteed the plans, but they paid a small fraction of what had been promised. Mom told me that they tried to find the money, and the more money they found, the more the participants got. She loved finding the money. She was restless. She spoke up. People tried to intimidate her, but my mom wasn’t someone who was intimidated. She would get angry. She found the money. Every single time I visited her office, there were flowers from someone thanking her. She made people’s lives better.

I still have my grandmother’s letter. It is part of my mom I didn’t know during her lifetime. What I did know was she always spoke up for me. When I wanted to take a science class, she made sure it happened. When I was told I couldn’t be a scientist she told me how ridiculous it was and pointed out that only the insecure say such things. She went to every parent’s weekend in college and tried every hands on activity in every department. (She said oceanography was always the most fun.)

She spoke up for me. She spoke up for a lot of people who needed a voice. I miss her voice, but I can still hear her. I better get back to work.

What should grad. school be?

I survived grad. school and, ultimately, thrived, for a variety of reasons that rarely had to do with the lab and more often had to do with the communities where I felt I belonged. The things I learned in those communities were the things that make me successful now, and we need to build more of them into graduate school opportunities if we want students to thrive.

Two things in grad. school saved me. The first was theater. In my program, we had to minor in something, and I picked playwriting on a whim. I fell in love not only with the writing but with the community. I became a producer and stage manager for productions and learned how to manage people, run a budget, and get things done on time. All of that has been essential to being a PI.

I also lived with undergrads and a graduate resident fellow. First, getting to know the undergrads, bake cookies, and watch X files was incredible. But I also received training in how to identify issues, and I had a great deal of practice with students who were struggling with school, family, and depression. I learned how to listen, and I learned when to trust my gut and make a call. I’m still very much working on learning to listen, but any success I have with it came from my time with my undergrads. I have to say that when it came time to get my hood, there was no one I wanted to celebrate more than them. I still have the white board, all these years later, where they wrote notes of congratulations after my successful defense.

Right now, approximately 50% of PhDs in STEM fields do not complete their PhDs. That number is horrifying. Not only are graduate students often putting the chance to earn an income and build their life up to the side to pursue their degrees, but there is a huge financial investment from universities and grants that support these students. When students leave, science is often left undone and there is a significant cost to the scientific enterprise beyond the impact on students who are the creative and passionate people who move the discipline forward. You want to know what the next great thing in science is– ask the grad. students. They know, and they know when we’re not treating them well and not giving them the experiences and tools to be successful leaders and innovators.

Changing the playing field and the players

Last year, I was at one of the major conferences in my field. A colleague
and old friend came up to me and started listing off her recent
accomplishments. She’s phenomenal, but it had been a long day, and I asked whether we could just talk about what we cared about whether it was science, kids, or the latest tv we saw?

Luckily, she’s a wonderful person, and she laughed, and then we did talk about the stuff we really cared about. Much of it was science. We both love science.

What I don’t love about science is the seemingly obsessive need to market
oneself. Conferences are becoming places where people seem to download their cvs to each other.  I’m all for celebrating successes, but I’m not sure I really want to hear about ever paper, every experiment, and every grant. Perhaps its sour grapes, but I think it’s because we are all seeming to move through these accomplishments because they are important for careers, but do they actually help people, even us?

Funding to do science keeps shrinking relative to the costs. When I started,
it was hard. Now, it’s even harder and there is no sign that is changing. When people get ready for the job market, they work hard to market their talents and success. It gets even more intense as tenure looms. Does it create the best work? I wonder. Putting brilliant people under huge stress so they go flat out to build their work, or realistically, their brand? That’s not what helps deal with huge challenges. I get that it is what we all feel like we need to do to survive, but maybe, we need to change the system instead.

I want to change how we do science. I want it to stop being about the
accolades and individual accomplishments. I want it to stop being about how one person, one lab, did some particular thing. I want it to stop being something that some of us do. I want it to be something all of us do.

I don’t want people to feel like they should couch their statements with
whether they are a scientist or not. I don’t want people to feel like they
aren’t capable of understanding math and science. I can’t think of many
disciplines in which people fundamentally feel outside of what is going on. I
still don’t really understand some of the existentialists, but I’ve never felt
like I should explain, I’m not a literary scholar when I dive in. I have
opinions, and I dare you to find someone who has read Camus who doesn’t.

We are born curious. We are born wondering, questioning, learning. We have a responsibility as human beings to continue to wonder, to question, and to learn. Are the more intense storms we see on the East Coast a function of the warming of the oceans? That is not the realm of science, that is the realm of survival, and each of us, regardless of our background should want to learn, and each of us who is learning should reach out to our fellow humans and help understand what is happening.

I believe in inclusion in science, but I believe you cannot have real
inclusion until the notion of who is a scientist is exploded. We are all
scientists. We all have to be scientists to see the world as it is, ask the
right questions and come up with the creative solutions we need to survive.

So, with all of that, how do we change science? How we fund science is a big
part of that. In grant reviews, we all assess whether a person or team of people are capable. We look at their biosketches, at their accomplishments. We need to find a way that looks at whether the team has the expertise needed for a project. We need to develop ways to assess whether the group understands how to work together. We need to celebrate the work at the interfaces of traditional disciplines and ideas. We need to celebrate work that engages people across disciplines, areas, and ideas regardless of their backgrounds and expertise. We need to celebrate ideas that are creative and different but also well motivated, and we need to help people outside of traditional environments to learn how to propose ideas and support them.

In our lab, we often joke that we are unhindered by knowledge. It’s not that
we think knowledge is not important- it is essential. But, it can be easy, when wading into all of the things that have been done, to believe that there is nothing that will work and that everything has been done. The gift of being new is not knowing. The gift of collaboration is new perspectives. If we want science to be creative and transformative, we need to open the door. We need to change how we celebrate, communicate, and investigate what might be possible.


Always room for one more

This was first published as a note on the Bioconjugate Chemistry facebook page. -Erin

When I was in college, the dining hall was organized with large, round tables, and smaller square ones. The round tables sat 8-10 people easily, and the smaller tables were designed for 4. Most people gravitated towards the smaller tables or, if the small tables were full, towards opposite sides of the large tables, except for one group.

Every evening, at 5 pm when the dining hall opened, a group of people gathered at the first big table. Each time a new person showed up, they cheered. When the table was full and someone showed, they cheered “detray, detray…” to make more room. When the table was full, and people would come up slowly, someone would always announce, “there’s always room for one more.” Room was found, even if it meant merging multiple tables. No one was ever turned away. As loud and chaotic as it could be at that table, everyone listened to each other. I have a quiet voice, and I never, once, had to yell to be heard. The loud people were loud, the quiet were quiet, and there was room for everyone.

I was a very shy freshman who really wondered if I’d find my place in College. This group, and their motto was an important part of feeling included. I didn’t sit with them every evening, but I was always welcome, no matter how full the table was, and I was always invited to be part of all of the chaos.

I think about that group of people a lot when I think about inclusive excellence. Just knowing that everyone was welcome changed the way the dining hall and the dorm were. It was a practice that set a culture whether it was hockey teams, the annual musical, or the Thursday night panic to get through the problem sets due on Friday. The brilliant thing was that everyone was welcome, period. The anxiety of being part of something was eliminated. Instead, we all focused on what we wanted to do.

How do we incorporate this mentality in science? I think we start with the words. If there is always room for one more, how do we support them? How do we make space and invite people in? I think we start by valuing each person’s strengths and are open about our own shortcomings. I think we change the way we approach graduate education from a place where people have to prove that they belong to a place where we learn how to help people capitalize on their strengths to do novel research. I think we stop seeing whether or not people are worthy of tenure and start supporting work that truly is interdisciplinary, inclusive, and by that, excellent. We value people and groups who go beyond traditional boundaries and expectations and who support each other.

Inclusion doesn’t stop at those who work in research labs. We need to expand the table to include the lay public not just as listeners but as people who are valuable partners in science. We all wonder about things. How do we go beyond demos and simple data collection to helping each other to ask questions and find solutions to the daily challenges we face? We need to work together not only to look for answers but to figure out what questions we need to be asking. Foster curiosity and provide the tools to start to pursue questions.

There is always room for one more.

Launch Committees: A walk to lunch

Many of my colleagues have been circulating an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about U. Michigan which has done exceptional work in promoting diversity and inclusion in the faculty and leadership in the College of Engineering (Chronicle article)

What they have done and what they have learned is exceptional, and they have made the investment to try new things, to study the outcomes, and to institutionalize the best practices.

Two of their major initiatives are their STRIDE program and Launch Committees. Launch committees are near and dear to my heart– they were envisioned and started by myself and GQ Zhang when we were at Case Western as part of the ADVANCE leadership program there.

GQ and I were told we would be the representatives from Engineering. I had just come on campus, and GQ was trying to be more integrated in Engineering (most of his time had been at the med. school), so it made sense. We had no idea what it meant, but we said we’d help. I’m sure information was shared with us, but like the good faculty we were, we had missed all of the information.

We were walking to a lunch meeting with the ADVANCE team and suddenly realized that we were supposed to have a plan for a project. GQ and I dropped back from the group. “Did you know we needed a plan and that we were presenting?” GQ responded, “No. Thoughts?” And so, as we walked we started talking about what we wished we would have had that would have helped us succeed.

There was no research, no investigating the literature. We just talked. Both of us felt like getting started was tremendously hard, and both of us felt incredibly isolated in our first positions. I had moved to Case Western in the hopes of being in a more collegial, collaborative environment. I vented about how frustrated I was that no one seems to think about where a person will go or what space they need until after they start. GQ wished people tried to help make connections.

Over the course of the walk, we put a plan together. By the time we sat down for lunch, Launch committees were born. I can’t help but think that seeing the lunch menu spurred the idea of calling it launch committees, but I don’t remember.

We were given a coach, Helen Williams, who was beyond great. We both wondered what a coach did, and as we learned, she helped us figure out how to implement it. She brought up the idea of a checklist so we could make sure all the committees covered the critical content. It also helped with tracking.

We were in the middle of a strategic hiring initiative, and GQ and I were both involved in the hiring, so it made it relatively seemless to organize them. We didn’t require the new faculty to have launch committees, but we were delighted that the vast majority wanted them. Our early data was promising. People had the space they needed earlier and, based on interviews, had more contacts and connections that were leading to collaborations.

After two years, we were supposed to turn over running the program to the associate dean for faculty development. Unfortunately, that person stepped down and the position wasn’t filled. We ran it in an ad hoc way for people and departments who were willing to participate, but it stopped being the norm.

We presented on the project at the IDEAL leadership Plenary ADVANCE meeting in 2011. A number of colleagues from the universities in attendance asked for the how to guide. We happily shared it. Our colleagues at U. Michigan ran with it and did formal studies of the impact and published the work.

Launch committees have a positive effect on getting faculty started and helping to support them as they grow and become part of the university. It is worth taking the time to invest early and often with new faculty in a formal way. It helps them get started, but it also helps to build a practice of collaboration across disciplines.

I’m thrilled that it has become a successful and formal part of U. Michigan’s approach to helping faculty be successful and that it is part of what has increased inclusion and diversity of the faculty. I hope more and more universities embrace the practice. I’ll never forget, though, that it all started when GQ and I asked what we would have liked and then tried to figure out how to make it happen as we walked to lunch.